The decline of social-news apps and Facebook as a gatekeeper

The apparent signs of a precipitous decline in some of Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” social-news apps set off a a minor frenzy in the blogosphere on Monday, with many critics taking considerable delight in the collapse of something they openly despise. Further investigation by TechCrunch (s aol) and others, however, showed that the drop-off is likely a result of changes that Facebook has made to its algorithms rather than a mass exodus of users. That in turn reinforces a lesson media companies need to keep in mind at all times: namely, that Facebook is the information gatekeeper now, and you are just a provider — and only one of many.

Jeff Bercovici at Forbes was the first to point out the massive decline in monthly average users of the Washington Post‘s social-reading app, noting that the newspaper had lost more than 50 percent of its users in the last month — dropping from around the 18 million mark to about the 9 million level. Buzzfeed’s John Herrman then looked at some of the other social-news apps from outlets such as The Guardian and Yahoo (s yhoo) and found that they also suffered dramatic declines in users during the same period. This triggered a wave of schadenfreude from many in the media industry and the tech sector who see the apps as spammy and irritating rather than helpful or interesting.

Facebook giveth and Facebook taketh away

Not long after these charts first appeared, however, others started asking questions about whether the declines were really caused by a mass exodus of frustrated users, or whether they were triggered by changes at Facebook. Jeff Sonderman at Poynter raised the question in a post — and then TechCrunch and Inside Facebook dug into the changes a bit further, and noted that Facebook has been fiddling with the way that links from social-reading apps appear in a user’s news feed. Whereas they used to come in a big chunk that many found irritating, now there is a smaller box with just a single “trending articles.”

The big lesson from this, as Sonderman notes in a follow-up post, is that Facebook giveth and Facebook taketh away. If you look at charts that cover a longer period than just a single month, you can see a massive spike in the user-base of some social-reading apps like The Guardian‘s — presumably driven by the same spammy quality of shared links that irritated so many users (Note: this is also a good lesson about how you should check data for more than just a one-month period before arriving at conclusions about user behavior). Then the new changes take effect and the spike is more or less erased.

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After all is said and done, these social-reading apps still have a significant number of readers: the Washington Post‘s app may have seen a 50-percent drop-off, but it still has nine million monthly average users, which is pretty substantial for a newspaper with just 500,000 subscribers outside of Facebook. And the Post deserves some credit for being one of the first to jump on the “frictionless sharing” idea — which publisher Don Graham (who has a fairly close relationship with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) described to Om last year as “going where the readers are.”

Handing control to Facebook is a Faustian bargain

At the same time, however, the deal that the Post and others have made with Facebook is very much a Faustian bargain, as I tried to point out when these social-reading apps were first launched. Can they drive traffic? Obviously they can. And it’s true that going where the readers are is a good strategy — just as it was when newspapers created portals inside America Online or CompuServe, or distributed “interactive CD-ROMs.”

But there is also an important reality when you make an arrangement like that, and it is that Facebook owns you, in the sense that it controls access to your content. It controls who sees it and when, and it controls how it is displayed — or even whether it is displayed. Turning over your reader comments to Facebook can be a double-edged sword in exactly the same way: yes, it takes care of things like trolls and spam (to a certain extent) by outsourcing all that to Facebook, but you may not always want Facebook to control whether a comment is posted or not.

As Michael Zimbalist of the New York Times research lab pointed out in a comment on Twitter, this is the same kind of lesson that startups of all kinds have had to learn about Google (s goog), which has a habit of changing the terms of its APIs and other services suddenly, thereby crippling or even killing entire business models with one fell swoop. Amazon (s amzn) — another platform disguised as a company — has done similar things with its APIs, which has also been a wakeup call for young companies.

Apple (s aapl), of course, has by far the most iron grip over what content and features publishers or anyone else can offer — and even how they can offer it, something that has soured a growing number of magazine and newspaper publishers on the iTunes model. The lure of these giant platforms is undeniable: they can expose your content to far greater numbers of people than you could ever do on your own. But never forget that they control every aspect of the crucial levers driving that business, not you.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Klearchos Kapoutsis